Paving the way for the next generation of Latino and Latina activists

Dr. Mary A. Papazian

As those of us at San José State know, this is a big anniversary year for our campus.

In October, we welcomed an impressive lineup of activists, athletes, journalists, and academics for a series of panel discussions related to human rights. In large part, we were celebrating the two remarkable San José State athletes whose courageous actions thrust themselves not only across the finish line, but into the forefront of athlete activism back during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

But there is a lesser known – though no less important – anniversary we also are observing this year, as we celebrate 50 years since Chicano and Chicana activists throughout San José and Santa Clara County began to demand social justice for the Latino community.

At the recent 50th Anniversary Chicano Student Movement Reunion on campus, I was pleased to welcome back those San José State alumni and many others who were here back in 1968, working on behalf of the Chicano and Chicana populations and paving the way for the next generation of Latino and Latina activists.

That event, and the 50 Years of Chicano Student Movement remembrance we celebrate this year, are interconnected in many ways.

Not only did both have origins in the year 1968, but the passion and zeal for human rights – human rights for all – is a shared passion, and the one that binds all of us together. Black or white, Latino or Asian, eastern European or native American – we share the same goals, which include equal opportunity, dignity, fairness, and respect.

It was inspiring to listen to the event’s keynote speaker, Humberto Garza, a San José State alumnus from 1968 who worked hard as the chairperson of the Mexican American Student Confederation to increase outreach and opportunities for Chicanos. As this was during the Vietnam War era. Mr. Garza believed that it was unfair to expect poor people to go to war before they could afford a college education.

He was right. We are proud of Mr. Garza’s legacy and the role model he has been to other Latinos and Latinas all these years.

We also heard that evening from former SJSU student leaders Juan Oliveres and Shirley Trevino. Their efforts, all of them, the work they started five decades ago, the progress they made, the changes for which they were responsible – those things are not forgotten.

The success stories are countless. I would like to share a couple of others.

Maribel Martinez is an SJSU alumna who graduated in 2003 with a degree in political science, and she returned to earn a master’s in applied anthropology in 2012.

After graduation, she worked at the Cesar Chavez Community Action Center, where she worked to create strong bridges between the campus and the community.

For more than nine years, she helped build the center into a program that interfaces with thousands of K-12 students and annually provides more than $100,000 in service to the community.

She went on to become manager of Santa Clara County’s new Office of LGBTQ Affairs, the first office of its kind at the county level in the United States.

I think it is fair to say that Maribel cut her leadership teeth right here at San José State, where she was our very first Chicana student body president. She also served as student government’s Campus Climate director, a liaison for social justice, religious, and ethnic organizations. In other words, she had a wealth of leadership experience before she even stepped out into the “real” world and started making an impact in our broader community.

Maribel was interviewed in our Washington Square magazine back in 2016, and she agreed that her student-leader, scholar-activist training at SJSU played a big role in shaping the kind of leader – the kind of person – she would become.

She even called SJSU a “campus of opportunity,” and those words ring true when we see today the off-campus success of former students like Maribel Martinez.

Another wonderful success story is that of Marisela Castro, a 2012 graduate who earned her degree in sociology and criminology. Like so many others, Marisela has had a tangible and positive impact on her community.

Her coursework delved into issues of wealth, poverty, and privilege, and she connected her studies in a very direct way with the afterschool program where she worked while attending SJSU.

Parents of the children she worked with were struggling at minimum wage jobs, often working multiple jobs in a sometimes-fruitless effort to put enough food on the table. Not surprisingly, the academic performance of those children suffered because of the issues their parents were facing back home, and there often were behavior problems as well.

Marisela saw firsthand what it meant for families when parents are barely earning a high enough wage to provide basic necessities. And what did Marisela do? She decided to find a solution.

Like any good scholar, she started with research, research that explored how low minimum wages perpetuate poverty. Ultimately, she decided to pursue a city-wide minimum wage increase. Her research had indicated that such an increase not only would help low-wage workers, but it would do so without increasing unemployment or harming small businesses.

So she got to work, fostering support for her idea and developing alliances. Others joined the effort, leading to an initiative known as CAFÉ J, or the Campus Alliance for Economic Justice that a classmate of Marisela’s created.

Ultimately, after a great deal of grassroots work, San José’s minimum wage was increased from eight dollars to 10 dollars an hour. The story of how all these students, including Marisela Castro, got the minimum wage raised was told in a number of national media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and MSNBC.

The theme at the celebration a few weeks ago was “Connecting the Past with the Present.” How appropriate! It not only serves as a fitting tribute to people like Humberto Garza, Juan Oliveres, Shirley Trevino, Maribel Martinez, Marisela Castro, and so many others, but it reflects the bridge they have created for the next generation of activists seeking social change. They are but just a few of the many living, breathing testaments to that legacy.

Here at San José State, we have become known as a “haven for athlete activism.” But I am working to broaden that characterization. We are truly a haven for athlete and student activism. And I look forward to the contributions of our current and future students to the challenges of their time.

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